EVENT REVIEW: The Gordon Burn Prize

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11th October, 2018

Durham Town Hall

Review by Gabriel Brown

The Gordon Burn Prize event has now become a regular occasion for me as part of my reviewing of the Festival, with this being one of a handful of times I’ve attended this highly enjoyable evening. 

This year’s prize–giving was perhaps the most different I’ve known it to be, however, although this on the whole was positive. The main contrast I noticed was the lack of a Q & A with the authors after they had read from their work (although with half of the authors absent I can understand why this was changed), and it ensured each reading flowed very nicely into the next after a brief introduction.

The other difference was absent authors still being able to read for us, via video! I’ve always loved hearing the authors read their work as you hear the words exactly how they intended them, but in previous years any absentee authors have had stand–ins, so to have the individuals reading was a welcome improvement. 

First introduced and first to read was Guy Gunaratne, who seemed a very genuine guy. In Our Mad And Furious City is his debut, and it shows real talent to be nominated for such a prize with his first novel. This talent was certainly heard in his writing/reading of a tale set on a London estate. 

Michelle McNamara’s crime novel I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was next: a humorous and incredibly intriguing account of herself (a journalist) and the pursuit of the ‘Golden State Killer’. The reading gripped me immediately, and as the first true-crime novel I’ve heard, it’s one I’m definitely looking out for. 

Olivia Laing was introduced after this along with a joke on how she was coming to us via video – something Gordon Burn himself would have enjoyed, due to his views on advancing technology. Olivia is the first writer (if my memory serves correctly) to have been nominated not once but twice before, and this third time was definitely the charm, as her reading (including some insightful comments on the relation of Nazis to numbness in her book) has made me eager to check out her work. 

Generally, I’ve been able to pick a favourite each year, but this year was a definite struggle. The quality was higher than ever, and I juggled both my personal favourite and the individual I thought the judges might have selected, but this year the prize was awarded to fourth reader Jesse Ball, who read his extract wonderfully, with a curious sense of sharpness. I didn’t fully understand Deborah Levy’s The Cost Of Living in all honesty, but her work was in no shadow of a doubt highly interesting and well-worth looking into. The concept of it was enticing, to say the least. 

Nicola Barker’s post-apocalyptic piece was a very unique style because aspects of the book were written in colour. I’ve never come across this in a novel before, and here the colours represented the emotion the protagonist was trying to get across in that moment: red for anger, etc. A very clever idea! Her monotone reading voice for her main character was great to experience and provides further proof of why the authors reading it themselves was the best thing for the event. 

The music performance by Andrew Weatherall came before the announcement of the winner: a piece commissioned for The Gordon Burn Prize, which left me puzzled but intrigued. A mixture of keyboard and spoken word alongside backing sounds and a short film, I didn’t fully understand it, but, like all the previous years’ music, it left me wanting to look more into the artist to hear some of their other work. 

The event closed on an incredibly touching winner’s speech, the likes of which I have never heard at the event before. Jesse was very humble in accepting the award, speaking of his brother and the dislike they both receive due to his brother’s disability. On the whole he was mainly saying we just need to be nicer to people, and the words were quite beautiful, leading to roaring applause – and rightly so. 

The Gordon Burn Prize is a favourite event of mine: an almost ritualistic part of my Durham Book Festival experience. It was a well deserved win for Jesse, a literary expansion for myself, and a growing excitement for next year’s proceedings, all in one.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.